Impossible Lessons in Parenting: Patience Is a Virtue Edition

A 3-year-old has thousands of ways to tell you to suck it. I learned the hard way that patience is the only thing that will get you through.

by Garth Johnson
A patient father and a son

When you’re a parent, as most parents already know, your patience gets tested in ways you never imagined before you had kids. Patience is a virtue and I’m nowhere near mastering it. As a 43-year-old father of four in Fairbanks, Alaska, where there are months of darkness and bitter cold to keep us cooped up without escape, my patience has been at breaking point so, so many times in so, so many ways. I’m not talking The Shining–level or anything, but to the point where I understand the impetus for such a break.

Moving on.

Sometimes it is the mental strain of the seemingly constant thunderclap of noise that is hard to believe can rise from such small people. Other times it is the physical restraint that I have to summon as I deal with my 3-year-old daughter, who has mastered the art of annoyance to a black belt level. She’s a prodigy, what can I say. She has perfected the silent yet blubbering stare that serves a response to even the simplest of yes or no questions. She looks me in the eye with a genuine blankness that can send me away muttering, surprised at how I could want to smack a child so young. She also has recently formed the habit of saying “Never” as the first word out of her mouth when she is asked to do or get anything. I could go on about her for awhile….

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Yet other times, it is the way my youngest little girl only knows how to answer questions with the word “no.” We know she means yes when it is a quick and easy no, spoken without veracity or inflection, like she does when we offer her something to eat. She will spin around, dance and smile wildly, all the while saying excited little nos with her arm outstretched and palm up. While her no-to-everything habit is funny and cute now, I know one day she will grow up and really mean no with all the same button-pushing enthusiasm as her predecessors.

She has learned to say no from her older siblings, who despite our lectures, continue to impress upon her many of the behaviors they know we loathe. This is where my patience gets tested to the core as it often seems we are powerless to do anything to stop it. We cajole and bribe, we entice and threaten, we tickle and yell. We explain that actions have consequences. No matter what we try, “no” only brings them immediate satisfaction.

After a period of calm, we can feel the winds of discord start to swirl and build as we see the next storm brewing on the horizon. It is inevitable and tiresome. It takes time and effort to deal with while it’s happening and even more time and effort to clean up afterwards. It requires the utmost in patience to not walk right through the front door and start yelling up at the sky.

In this case we have no choice but to weather the storms and rebuild from the ashes, but at least my wife and I are both bright and resourceful to accept this challenge. We chop wood and haul water and garden and build and make medicinal salves and potions. We can work to achieve good things together and mostly do. That’s what makes it hard to fathom why we can’t defeat this loud and obnoxious army of little effing kids. If I really think about how futile it all can feel sometimes, I daydream about buying a one-way ticket to Huahine (look it up and you’ll see). Another solution: We could go Old World and bring back some time-tested yet draconian methods of influence. While undoubtedly effective, cages and restraints are a little frowned upon today, which is probably for the better, although it would be so much easier, just saying.

A better strategy is probably the one I already subscribe to. It’s not easy or natural to me. It comes with a long and steep learning curve. Patience is definitely a virtue because it is so hard to maintain and have faith in. It gets so many tests, and just when you think you have it all figured out, another challenge comes along that manages to eclipse all the moments that helped you to have patience in the first place.

It’s something that remains a work in progress, and it is constant and repetitive — oh so repetitive. But it is the basis for any and all parenting strategies that don’t involve lengthy jail time or new identities. It is something that is both necessary and worth working on. There will be times where I will throw my hands up in anguish and disbelief that we ever thought having four kids would be prudent for our mental stability; but we are only human, and parents, and good ones of both groups are still learning all the time.

That is, as long as we have the patience to keep doing so.

Garth Johnson is a dad and a carpenter in Fairbanks, Alaska. When not bribing his four kids, all under 9 years old, he loves to tickle, play, and wrestle with them.